Perception ≠ Reality

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We often hear the phrase perception is reality. In the physical world, we are told that we cannot perceive reality directly; perception is all we have. “If a tree falls in the woods…..”

As leaders, we transfer this rule into behaviors, i.e. how we perceive a product, becomes what it is. How we perceive a person or a company’s reputation is who they become for us. And, how we are perceived at work, we are told, becomes reality for our peers, subordinates and our bosses.

And yet, perception is often far from reality. Even in the physical world, when we don’t have enough information, e.g. without knowledge of time, darkness can be perceived as night or a storm.

I was reminded of this fact this past weekend. I was at our annual gathering of Vistage chairs, who have led groups for 10 or more years. Vistage chairs, as a group, tend to pay attention to the subtleties; after all, we are trained to do so. One would think, therefore, that this would translate to “knowing” that what we perceive may not be what is. Yet, like most other humans, we miss sometimes.

Here’s one example. On the first day, we did an exercise that was a “fun” icebreaker. Hmm, well, at least it was fun for the extroverts, and, to a person, the introverts found it uncomfortable. For the extroverts it was an energy break; for the introverts it was stepping outside our comfort zone. A good exercise for sure, and yet a very different exercise for us than for the extroverts. In fact, it wasn’t until I checked in with one of my fellow introverts that I understood how misaligned my perceptions were. We were talking later in the weekend and I asked him why it seemed that he didn’t recognize me when we passed each other several times during the first day exercise and he responded, “Wow, I didn’t even see you; I was just trying to get through it.” On that day, my perception was that he wasn’t interested in engaging with me. His reality was that he was so uncomfortable with the exercise that he disengaged completely.

Another way to say this: perception is about us, reality is about the other person.

The learning for me…

Ask a question and seek to understand the reality, beyond our own perceptions, and life will hold some lovely surprises.

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain